Three days later, I had my first unfortunate encounter on the road.
I galloped straight into a town that was in the process of being ransacked by Lord Trant’s men, an undisciplined rabble of villains who were flying his banner as their license to do what they wanted.
There must have been about a hundred of them, low, nasty common thieves and cutthroats, tearing the small town that had looked quite pretty from the distance, nestled amongst the orchards and farmlands in a gentle vale, to pieces.
Of course, I could hear the screaming way before I arrived and I’m not sure what I thought I would be doing when I got there, but I extracted maximum speed from the black of the day.
On the outskirts of the town, carts lay burning and a few bodies here and there, men mostly but also old women and children, bloodied, trampled and dismembered. If I hadn’t seen it a thousand times before, I would have felt nauseous but as it was, it was so familiar a sight that it felt in a way as though I arrived home after a longish absence.
Closer to the centre of the town, where the street turned into cobblestones and narrowed with houses either side, there were drunken soldiers everywhere, pulling objects and women and sheets, throwing things from windows, throwing people from windows. The street itself was strewn with household objects, glass and broken crockery, tapestries and cloth in tangles, and more bodies still so my black danced nervously and could not keep an even stride.
Everywhere behind the whitewashed walls of the houses, minds were screaming insanely and created a cacophony, overlays of all kinds of emotions, hard shafting waves of grim lust and killing desire, agony and terror, despair and sheer panic, animal agony and blind pain and I tried to separate the perpetrators from the victims but I could not, there was simply too much noise.
Three soldiers reeled drunkenly, and seeing me on the dancing horse, started laughing and hooting towards me. I panicked and killed them with a single blow, sending them crashing and sliding along the cobble stone street and joining the general mayhem in the gutters. Shouts started up, and soon there were soldiers everywhere, behind me, above me on the rooftops, and approaching from the front.
Something struck me violently on my left shoulder and I realised someone had thrown a jug at me from one of the overlooking windows. It shattered on a wall beside me and my black reared up, nearly unseating myself. Clear and cold, Lucian rose within me and I struggled only briefly to try and control him; when a stool hit my black by the side of the neck, opening a gashing red wound in his black skin, rearing him higher still and making him scream out, I just let go and went with it.
Ice cold control descended on the mind of the horse and it steadied immediately, fully focussed now on the task of avoiding any further missiles. I drew the sword from the saddle scabbard and the black exploded forward and straight into the throng of soldiers up ahead.
They were lousy fighters, drunk and actually hindered by there being too many of them too close together. What the hooves of the black didn’t smash and trample, my flashing sword decapitated, disembowelled in a single stroke, sliced, cut and tore limb from flesh.
The black killed with volition and with purpose, aiming his blows with speed and agility, me knowing his moves just before they occurred and moving with them as one, him redirecting himself at my slightest shift of attention and direction.
Seconds later, the soldiers up ahead broke, turned and fled and I chased them down, until I had the last one hiding under a cart in an alleyway and got the black to rear and smash down with his great hooves until the wood splintered and broke and impaled the whimpering soldier beneath it.
I turned the black and we crashed back into the direction from where I had come, driving him deliberately across the bodies of men who were still trying to escape into doorways or pressing themselves into the walls, catching up on the running ones and slashing them down with pure delight.
I stopped, turned the black and looked down the road. Nothing was moving in the street but there were many minds in the houses all around, waiting for their chance at revenge. I felt a powerless anger for a moment and a resolve to go from house to house in person and to kill them all, and then a second mind joined with the first, aligning with decision. There was no need for that. I strafed the hiding minds with hot fire, slashing through their patterns just as though I was wielding a sword of my own, reached out further and any mind that reeked of mercenary was extinguished, one by one.
Whimpering, fear, agony, terror.
The remaining victims and the people who had managed to conceal themselves were the only ones I could perceive and I came back to my own awareness, breathing heavily, a deep cut across the knuckles of my sword hand, and a broken shoulder and collarbone on the other side.
I fixed it in a reflex, then I mended the black.
Sword still in hand, I moved and on through the town, sending gentling where I could and healing where this was needed, repatterning torn minds and bodies.
In the devastated market place I stopped and let the healing ripple out and through not just the town but also the farms that lay beyond it, and beyond it further still until all the whimpering and crying had stopped and there was only a profound sense of relaxation and peace remaining, and the sadness and anger of those who had seen their loved ones die. I left that well alone. They had every right to be sad and angry.
When I left that town behind, I felt unbalanced and uncomfortable. Most of all, I was well aware of what a fool I had been to ride alone into such a situation like a wild beast will blindly run into a gamut of lances. If one of those men at the higher windows had had any sense at all or a better aim, I would have fallen there and then, and where would my quest had been? Ended under a dirty soldier on a piss soaked cobble stone street?
I was too vulnerable, too alone and too unstable in my knowledge of warfare. Even when both my fighting with the physical and the mental swords were one and I would be able to easily kill an entire army with a thought, there were still too many variables, one of them being that I actually did not want to go around killing everyone and anything that stood in my way, regardless of how richly they deserved this.
It was messy, dangerous and attracted far too much attention.
From thereon in, I scouted well ahead and if there were knots of soldiers or of outlaws thronging the road ahead, I would circumvent them and on one occasion, put a whole group of them to sleep so I could slip by unnoticed.
The land was now deeply ravaged.
The towns that lay on this main approach to Pertineri were in no better shape than the one where I killed the rabble of soldiers, only here the soldiers were long gone and their victims were trying to pick up the pieces, petrified of attacks by bands of outlaws and stray companies who didn’t want to fight any battles at all yet enjoy the rich rewards of war behind the lines.
Eventually, I went to cloaking myself and the horse deeply into shadow wherever we went, at first just here and there when there were people, but then I gave up and kept the cloak active at all times.
So we became a rushing shadow moving by, moving by troops marching on the road, moving through long stretches of forest and of farmland, silently and carefully through the villages and towns on route.
I stopped at an inn once in a while, but now never to sleep but to simply command that food and water be brought out to me where I waited in the darkness. It was efficient and served my purposes well enough for now.
Pertineri was about two day’s ride over the horizon and I could already virtually smell the fear and dying all around the besieged city where what was left of King Selter’s army was being silently undermined by the operations of his own Lord Chancellor. Trant would be placing the crown on his own head before the moon turned again. The thought caused a strange stirring inside me but I did not allow it or any connecting memories to rise and distract me from my task.
I left the road and began to traverse the countryside instead, keeping a distance that would add many day’s travel but was preferable to try and make my way through the valley where Pertineri lay, vast and full of rising spires amongst its undulating, heavy white walls that had never been breached in all of history.
If Lord Chancellor Thelein had anything to do with it, they wouldn’t be breached this time, either.
I vaguely wondered what it must be like for the king, walking sleeplessly amongst his castle with the doom just round the corner and his own head and that of his wife, his children and his grandchildren already destined to be placed on the requisite spikes of the inner palace walls for all to see.
Even though I kept a good half day’s distance from Pertineri as I circled around the great valley where it lay, I still did not entirely manage to avoid roaming bands of soldiers, scouts and spies that seemed to be growing from the very trees and sheltering hills themselves.
There were minds everywhere.
It was enough to make you feel quite surrounded. I did not sleep well at all in spite of doubling my protection and found it hard to send the current horse back of a night time, feeling a fool at not wanting to be all alone in these fields of darkness.
Two days into this, I gave up trying to rest at night and kept on riding, exchanging horses every half day and half night for extra speed and for their renewing energy upon which I drew liberally as to not have to stop for food, or sleep.
Another two days on, and on my closing arc that would return me to the straight old trading route that terminated in the north mountains themselves, the final battle for Pertineri began.
I considered blocking it all out but as the turmoil on every level crested higher and higher still, I halted the current black, found a sheltering place in a copse beneath some overhanging trees, and decided to watch through someone’s eyes.
The patterns of minds, energy and emotion was incredible – a giant churning sea. I skimmed the surface until I found something vaguely familiar and homed in on it. Closer and denser into the individual components of the patterns, and I made contact with a single mind, soothed it out of the way and took over the awareness and the body of:
Small. Oh but I am small. Low down, everything looks gigantic and out of proportion. People rushing and they are giant trunks of legs. I am crying. No-one takes notice and I wish my nurse would come to find me here. Ooooh, I was bad not to stay in the nursery like they told me to …
I push the whimpering child mind aside like you would brush away a flimsy curtain and centre myself in the small, feeble body that is deeply distasteful to me, no, not me, oh back away for now, leave me be and let me see!
Cautiously, I sidle to the nearest wall and press myself against it, to get my bearings.
I am on the battlements of a high, high building. It is a very large building and I recognise it simultaneously twice, this is the command area of the defence wall, just above the Eastern Gate, the main entrance to the city of Pertineri.
Here, the walkway that spans the city’s famous white wall widens out to three times it’s normal width and I slowly send a sweeping glance left and right across to thousands of soldiers and helpers, children, servants, are preparing to fight for their lives and their loved ones and to stop the walls from being climbed or breached.
There is the creaking and the crash of catapults being fired, rough shaped rocks rising high in the air, bare-chested men sweating to re-bend the wooden shafts. There are nervous swordsmen pacing, some crouching and waiting for their turn in the unfolding events; there are headmen shouting orders over the din, and to my left I can see a whole group of wonderfully dressed generals and high commanders, their multicoloured cloaks sparkling in the bright light and their faces drawn and pale and their jaws set hard and square.
Behind the deep slits of the walls, the archers wearing the kings colours are firing, not at the enemy but straight up into the blue sky instead, smooth motions as they pull one arrow after the other from the quivers on their backs.
I carefully direct the small body to weave in and out of the swearing, racing adults and to find a place beside an archer, a young man with long brown hair and a scarf tied around his forehead, so I may be able to see the battlefield below where once the famous orchards had been.
I can’t see much because I’m too small and the wall is very thick, the slits are narrow but I can make out a veritable sea of tiny men fighting, horses, flags, and the noise and shouts and screams drifts up the wall to where I stand and seems to fall through the narrow gap, sharp and clear.
There is a wavelike motion in the sea of tiny men as the defenders of the city break, they can’t fall back, and there are shouts to open the gates to let them inside, from down below as well as up above, but the order to open the gate is never given and they are crushed against the walls by the oncoming tide of Lord Trant’s multicoloured hordes.
The archer towering above me, oblivious to me, is now aiming straight down instead of to the sky and I notice that his hands are shaking. I cannot see this but I must imagine that a rain of arrows is pouring upon the men below, friend and foe alike, and there’s another slow untidy ripple as the army below withdraws to leave a safe zone, littered with bodies, some of which are moving still.
I can only see a small window of the ground, and try and stretch and peer and hear and see at the same time as the battering rams are slowly creaking their way towards the front, the soldiers below parting to let the big brown beetles make their slow approach towards us, pushed by invisible men with shields above their heads.
Enough. I let the connection dissolve and fairly pushed the child’s mind aside, monetarily disoriented by the incredible noise of minds before I can re-focus myself in my own body, waiting for me right here in the shadow of the copse, balanced perfectly in the saddle of my motionless horse.
I feel very stiff and very tired. I hoped that somehow, the boy whose mind I had stolen would survive or that at least he would not have to suffer too much in the coming days and weeks and months. I somehow hoped that this war was not my fault, that somehow it would have happened just the same if the thing that Lucian and I became that night had not slain the Serein.
It was a lot to hope for, to be sure. I stretched in the saddle, orientated myself to find my bearings and we set off once again, as fast as the horse and the terrain would allow, away from the slaughter of Pertineri which I shut from my mind with the tightest cloak that I could manage and that yet I still thought I could hear, and smell and see.
I pushed myself and the blacks to the limits after that day. When we picked up the trading road again, the destruction was worse than ever, for this was the direction from which Trant’s main force had come, burning and plundering and defiling everything that lay in their path, and the road was the centre of their river of destruction.
There was not a field, not a house, not a village nor a single inn or building that did not seem to have been touched by the wave of devastation that had engulfed the whole land. I could not stand the sight of any of it, from the big horrors to the tiny small ones, and in the end gave up the fight and entered Lucian’s blue ice state where it was immaterial who was responsible for all of this, where there was no exhaustion and no guilt, no fear and no pain. It held until the trade road divided and led northwards towards the great desert and away from the east where Trant’s own lands had never been enough for his ambitions.
It held until the clues to human habitation became less and less visible and the land changed from winter green grey to a grey of low shrubs and eventual twisted tiny trees; it held until the road became hardly differentiated from the wilderness beyond, and it held until that night I came across a set of twinkling lights strong against the black horizon beneath a violent purple and orange sunset.
Had it not been for those lights, when the exhausted horse beneath me lost his footing and stumbled badly, nearly unseating me, I would have just thoughtlessly send him back and fetched the next to continue on.
As it was, my eyes caught the lights and my attention wavered and I fell back into myself and a reality of a body that was being destroyed for lack of food and water, bones and muscles long beyond screaming and the skin and flesh of my legs around the width of the great horse worn away, my hands beyond bleeding from the simple act of holding the leather reins.
With my will gone, the black collapsed beneath me and send me flying into the stones and prickly shrubs, softened by the gathering darkness all around.
I lay on my back upon the sharp stones and looked up to the sky. Stars were there, already. A long line of them. They were up on high and I lay broken on the ground. A little way to my right, the harsh rasping gasps of the current black were stopping and starting, stopping and starting. Then they ceased and all was very, very quiet indeed.
I looked up at the stars and they were spread out in a thinning line above my head.
They were the wrong stars.
When you look up at the stars from the tower high in the North Mountains, you would not see these stars.
They were the wrong stars and something would have to be done to put it right.
I reached down into the old dusty ground beneath me and drew its ancient strength into me. Slowly, slowly, I began to be able to feel myself again, and I drew further energy from the ground upon which I lay to begin to repair the most important damages.
Slowly my heart began to beat steady once more, and my breath became deeper, drawing in the cold evening wind and using it to fuel further repairs, further re-charging.
Eventually I could just about turn myself so the biggest stone was no longer digging into the small of my back, and shuffle my head to rest it more comfortably on the ground, but I had no strength to raise my arms or to even consider getting to my feet.
I reached around with my mind and came across some small animals. Hungrily, I fell upon them and drained them of their life’s essence, flicking from one to another like a shadow predator, drawing their warm energies deeply into my depleted self.
Then I could sit up, and a little while later, I could stand.
The lights that had caused me to stop and fall were still flickering in the mid distance, and the sky was now a deep dark blue black with a single streak of purple near the high horizon.
I could retrieve Lucian’s book from the saddlebags and my personal small bundle, but not the sword which was buried under the massive body of the fallen black. I gave him a respectful farewell, and carefully and controlled set off on the desert road towards the lights.
As I approached closer and could observe with my eyes what I had seen from a long way away already, there was a strange sense of familiarity about the scene.
By the side of the road, a few dozen paces away, a group of travellers had set up camp for the night.
There were a dozen assorted wagons, in a loose semi circle, some of them ablaze with lamps, and a small group of tethered ponies. Three fires, a central one and two cooking fires, cast a bright yellow light into the area and threw long, dancing shadows of the carriages across the desert on all sides.
It was late enough and there were only a handful of men and women sitting around the main fire, one of them holding a square stringed instrument, playing it and singing softly.
I sent out a recognition/hail to them as not to surprise them by stepping straight out of the darkness, and the more sensitive amongst them turned around and started to look for me, long before the sleepy dogs had picked up my scent and began barking and rushing towards me.
I sent them back to their resting places by the side of the fire and below the wagons, and walked up and across to the traveller’s fire. They had all risen now apart from the young one with the instrument. He was just turning his head.
I stepped halfway into the circle of light and addressed them formally.
“I would seek your hospitality this night.”
They looked me up and down and exchanged some glances. Finally, a grown man in a white shirt and dark cloak blowing loosely in the wind in time with his hair, stepped forward a single step and answered me,
“Be welcome by our fire.” and indicated a space on the other side of the musician.
They watched me closely and as one as I walked by and sat myself down, cross legged, about an arms reach away from the young traveller on my left, and placed the book and rolled up shift in front of me onto the sandy ground.
An older woman with a white streak in her long black hair, sharp dark eyes and somewhat suspicious look about her, asked if I would have some food and I gratefully acknowledged that this would be a very welcome thing indeed.
She made off towards the cooking fires, her long skirt and wrap trailing behind her like the veil of a queen. I was watching her in fascination when the young man by my side offered his name, Veredra Madero. I thought about it and then told him I was called Marani and that my horse had died on the road.
The others then joined the conversation and asked me questions, of one kind or another, which I answered as truthfully as I could.
I told them that I was getting away from the war in the lowlands and that I was travelling to find my husband to be who lived near the North Mountains.
They accepted this easily enough although the older woman, when she brought me bread, water and a thick stew soup, tutted and thought it was not a safe thing for one such as me to be travelling all by myself.
The food was very welcome and I slept wrapped in my cloak by the side of their fire until the dawn broke and the camp came into life once more, seemingly chaotic and yet with an underlying organisation and purpose and efficiency that I noted in passing.
I traded the dead black’s location in exchange for some help to get the saddle and tack off him and to retrieve my sword. The three men who accompanied me to this task set about it briskly and briefly. The black’s meat would feed the travellers for many days to come, yet I did not enjoy the sight of the great black hide being stripped expertly.
They admired the saddle and bridle considerably and offered me a trade for it; I am not altogether sure if they would not have just taken it from me if I had not send the tack back through the doorway. After that, they didn’t speak to me anymore, and when about ten minutes later my new black arrived and stepped easily through from nowhere onto the desert land, grey and stretching everywhere in all directions with the morning wind blowing blue banners across the sky, they averted their eyes and kept their heads bent until I had mounted and taken up my trail once more.
Here and there were still some shrubs and small clusters of grass and they became fewer and further in between as the road turned more and more to sand and there was less and less to break up the enormous sweep of the Reporah desert stretching out in front of me.
On this ancient trade route, at the very edge of the horizon you could see a pile of stones, barely visible under the swept up sand, and from the pile of stones rose a sun bleached mast of old wood. I knew these markers very well, they were an essential guide as the road itself was now no more, and there was just sand, sand and more sand. You kept your eyes on that marker until you would pass it, there would be an uncomfortable moment when you could see nothing, and then a little further you could see the next marker, just about visible above the rolling horizon, and you would know once more where you were and where you were supposed to go.
It was early in the season and still here, it was beginning to be hot as the day progressed and the sun began to climb. I had no intention of losing speed but this time, I was taking no chances with my horses. I exchanged them as soon as they began to tire, their hooves finding little leverage in the sand, every stride being a great effort to them, and when night came, I forced myself to stop, and to sleep. But I couldn’t get an ever growing sense of urgency from my mind, and I couldn’t sleep for any length of time, so I forced myself into relaxation, tuned into the singing stone, and watched the stars up above whilst my body rested and my mind still raced.
Fleeting flashes of camps in this desert, campaign trails of old, memories of this and that were crowding into my mind and I was having serious problems keeping them at bay.
In the end, I couldn’t stand it any more. I was as rested as I would ever be.
I opened the doorway, assumed my Lucian cloak and questioned the keeper of the horses as to the possibility of having more than the remaining eleven blacks at my disposal. The old man was most surprised by this request but assured me immediately that there were many more horses, yet the problem lay in finding ones of the right colour and training them in time. I told him that I didn’t care if they were purple, as long as I could exchange from now on every two hours and get this journey over with as quickly as possible.
So it was. I rode a progression of my blacks, and then greys, brown spotted ones, once a beautiful golden mare who was small, sensitive but light and fast across the sand. I placed orders for others of her kind and from then on, my speed improved considerably. I forced myself to take two rests, one during the day and one at night, and kept myself entirely focussed on making it from one of the markers to the next, each one requiring two changes of horses during the night, and four during the day. I neither ate nor drunk but used the horses themselves to nourish me as I needed.
In all that time, I saw nothing and no-one, and there were only the tiniest of minds there, scurrying across the sand. The emptiness was at first a relief, then it became uncomfortable. Eventually, I had to struggle to contain memories and voices in my head that were seeking to fill the silence, and when finally, the land gave way to rocks and low shrubbery once more, and I knew that the desert had been successfully traversed, I was intensely relieved.
The road was back once more beneath us, zig zagging now in between huge boulders and strange yellow rocks that looked as though they had been carved into the shape of teeth, thin at the bottom and big at the top. The land was rising and the rock formations became more and more dramatic, until we finally entered a high plateau and the vegetation became more luscious; with the vegetation, there came the signs of human habitation once more.
The people here were different, darker of skin and more suspicious in nature; their towns and houses poorly built and very basic. I gave them no heed unless I needed to replenish my provisions and mercilessly drove on, giving their larger settlements a wide birth, on, and on, across the plains of Evar, across the great river half mad with impatience as the old ferryboat wallowed excruciatingly slowly against the pull of the flow, across the snow covered mountain passes of Trystera and on and into the great Northern Forests that stretched for hundreds of miles and were the last stage of my journey.
A succession of sunrises and sunsets.
Oh how well I knew them.
Road beneath the flying hooves of my horses, rhythmic pulsing of my horse beneath me, my eyes on the furthest place of the horizon and my will driving us onwards, stop and change horses, rest awhile, then on, on, towards another sunset and then another sunrise.
In the forest, it wasn’t so easy to tell anymore because you couldn’t see the sky and you were travelling under a canopy that became blacker and blacker, the deeper into the forest you went, the trees so thick and great that there was virtually no undergrowth at all, and the road bending and winding to avoid them rather than confront the greatest of them.
Then, the road divided into the general trade route and another, smaller one that I remembered so well and that was half hidden from those who did not know of its existence. This road let only to one place, and it had not been travelled in living history.
I strained my eyes to find any signs of his passing before me.
There was a broken branch, yellowed with age – had he broken it as he rode by? Were those impressions in the wet forest floor possible remnants of his horse’s hooves? The path wound now, higher, higher, and I exchanged horses as soon as they started to gasp with desperation and their muscles began to transmit the tell tale trembles of exhaustion.
I no longer rested and we went higher, and higher still, the trees now different, spikier, further away from one another, light coming through, ferns growing, the floor covered in brown needles and cones that crunched and little twigs that shattered noisily and fluttered unseen birds. Sometimes, I shortcut straight up inclines rather than to follow the winding road, and one horse after the other was pushed to it’s very limits as I made their will my own and used them brutally.
I could not stop. I could not rest. I could not allow myself the thought that I might be too late and he had died or he had long since gone.
Or that he wasn’t there at all.
I might have been wrong all along.
Stones now. Grey, laced with white. Great slabs of stones by the side of the trail and the forest was gone, opening the view to the enormous rise of the first tributaries of the North Mountain range, rising sheer and steep and grey and silver topped straight into the clouds and beyond.
The trail became a narrow, dangerous slither of stone strewn ledges, cut straight into the side of the mountain. I could no longer get the speed from the horses that I needed to keep my racing mind and heart at bay and it took every ounce of my control to not give in and just kick the animal beneath me into a mad race that would sent us both flying, flailing and shattering against the sharp, sheer sides and into the ocean of rocks, far below.
Night fell rapidly, drowning everything in black on black and I had to stop. I took refuge beneath an overhanging ledge and I reached with every fibre of my being up ahead, but there was nothing there – if I had not known well enough that the Tower was just another half day’s ride up ahead, I would never have suspected it to be there at all.
It was very cold this high up. The cloak and my shielding were not enough to keep the awareness of the sheer weight of the rocks below and the rocks above and the wind rushing, battering, like irregular waves or an army of ghosts throwing itself against the shuddering mountains, vibrating rock. I was vibrating too and could not find rest; not even the green blue waves of the stone could alleviate my nervousness, my fear, and what made things even worse, Lucian’s memories were stirring, churning below my consciousness, Lucian’s memories of Sephael and the Tower, and I could not begin to allow an interaction with those.
It was impossible to remain like this for another second. I called a fresh horse and flooded the path ahead with dancing fires, round and diffused in the deep misty night. which snorted the horse and made it half rear but I forced it on and through and I continued, higher, colder, breathing harder, higher, steeper and steeper still, and when I thought it was impossible to continue, the trail became a set of steeply rising steps instead, forcing the last ounces of reserves from my trembling horse.
Slowly, the sky began to brighten and with it came a cutting wind that I could feel even through the shielding right into my bones, but slowly, slowly, the trail became longer and further, more clearly discernible and when the mists had cleared and dawn came upon me in colours like I did not think could ever exist anywhere at all, I saw with my own eyes for the first time the rise of the tower up ahead, organically grown from the rock in which it was rooted, silver black and the enormous waves of Lucian’s memories crested roaring high and nearly washed me out of the saddle in an instant.
My own fear and premonition mingled into his dark knowledge and remembrances, and it took me a good time to find the courage to spur the tired horse on for one last effort and we climbed the last two serpent swings of the mountain trail and up onto the platform that terminated in the base of the tower and the huge blue black metal entrance doors in the shape of two raven’s wings.